'Josie and the Pussycats': Inside the 16th Anniversary Reunion & Concert
Rachael Leigh Cook, Letters to Cleo’s Kay Hanley and the directors reflect on the cult fave.
Back in the late ‘90s and early aughts, Rachael Leigh Cook was the It girl when it came to coming of age films. Her first claim to fame was She's All That, and after that she starred in 2001's Josie and the Pussycats remake. While the film didn't quite make a splash at the box office, it did become a cult favorite thanks to the cool main characters played by Cook, Rosario Dawson and Tara Reid. But what made the film even more of an enduring presence was its soundtrack, which a lot of people didn't know was led by vocals from Letters To Cleo’s Kay Hanley.
As the Josie and the Pussycats soundtrack and film have both garnered a rabid following over the years, a reunion is finally happening Tuesday (Sept. 26) in Los Angeles. Co-writers and directors Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont and stars Cook, Reid, Gabriel Mann and Missi Pyle will be on-hand alongside Hanley, who will perform songs from the seminal soundtrack. Plus, fans will be able to get questions that have been burning for 16 years answered by the cast.
Before the one-night-only event (for now), Kaplan, Elfont, Cook and Hanley filled us in on the making of the film, soundtrack and the castings (Beyonce?) that almost happened.
Why is the screening of Josie taking place 16 years later?
Harry Elfont: That’s why it came up. The 15th anniversary was last year and I don’t think they were able to put it together in time. They were really determined to have this released on vinyl. We just heard about it through label. When we started talking about doing an event around the release of the album, we got them in touch with Kay Hanley, who was excited to try playing these songs live for the first time. It became a bit of an event. Then Rachael Leigh Cook said she wanted to come. It kept growing. It’s amazing.
Did people think it was really Rachael, Rosario and Tara singing in the movie?
Deborah Kaplan: It’s one of those things that went in the press releases when they did the junket, but I’m not sure people thought it would be such a thing.
Elfont: We wanted to keep the reality of the girls singing, like an old-fashioned movie musical. We released a single and a video. On the other hand, Kay is really cool and we were happy to have people know it was her. We weren’t trying to hide her, but we weren’t trying to advertise it. That’s why it might have been confusing.
Did Rachael, Rosario and Tara sing on any of the songs?
Kaplan: Our girls sang background vocals on everything. I remember we put them in the booth and they did background vocals on all the songs. I particularly remember them doing “Spin Around.”
Elfont: We wanted their vocals on the tracks. They weren’t able to do the lead vocals, but I think they’re credited with background vocals on the album. They learned how to play too. We had a two week band camp where we had musicians in L.A. take them through the songs. Rachael was barring in the right place on guitars. Tara knew the drum fills. Rosario learned how to play the bass. The girls were hurting after that band camp.
How did you think the music fueled the film?
Elfont: We wrote the script first and had sections where we knew we needed songs. We knew we needed a raw, punk song and then we knew we needed a sugary pop song. We brought together an all-star group of songwriters. It was a super fun process working with all of these songwriters. It was the most fun part of the process. When we had all of the songs recorded, we played them for our music editor at the time, and he was like, these are really great, but where’s the raw punk one? That’s when me and Dave [Gibbs] came up with “3 Small Words” that came out at the beginning of the movie.
Kaplan: We wrote those Du Jour songs in the back of a car service. It was fun because you could literally write the weirdest and piece of shit lyrics and as long as it rhymes, no one questions it. We were looking at those weird, anthemic songs like “Backstreet’s Back.”
Elfont: Even musically, listening to those progressions. So many of those songs have that. The new Taylor Swift opens up and I’m like, oh, that’s Du Jour’s “Backdoor Lover.”
Rachael Leigh Cook: It’s interesting because the movie satirizes boy band culture and manufactured bands, but what’s interesting is that the movie is 100 percent tongue and cheek, but it still has so much heart, but I think the music symbolizes the passion these girls had for the music.
Is there anything people don’t know about the music or movie that you can divulge?
Elfont: The list of people who auditioned to be in the movie. The fact that Beyoncé, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes and Aaliyah came in to audition was crazy. I think it was 2000. We read Left Eye twice. She really wanted to play the part. Beyoncé was really quiet and shy. Who knew? It was a comedy and Aaliyah was more serious and thoughtful. We wanted someone who could really play the comedy.
Kay Hanley: One of the things you do not know is that Babyface had picked another Josie and I flew to L.A. to be the voices of the Pussycats. But when they realized the singer was too good, no one could see it coming out of Rachael’s mouth. I was there – right place right time – and I was able to come in and take it. I did a lot of the background vocals. A Canadian rock chick named Bif Naked did a lot of the background vocals.
Cook: It’s hard for me to know what people don’t know because I have my own experience, but I guess what I would hope if anything is that it inspires people who do love the movie to tell their friends.
Is there anything you would have changed?
Elfont: It’s a strange movie and a strange project. We were looking at it as satire of pop culture and consumerism, but it was aimed at tween girls. There’s disconnect between what we were trying to do versus ultimately who the movie was marketed to. I think that’s why it’s special and has remained popular for some people.
Kaplan: If this had been now, we didn’t take a dime from any of those people…they had to be in on the joke and let us use their logos. It was nice every once in a while to come across someone who we really respected and admired that were like, “we get what you were doing.” If it was now, we would have been able to take the internet and defend it.
Kay, people didn’t really know you were the voice of Josie.
Hanley: That was kind of the point. The people who knew definitely knew, and some still won’t after this. I have zero to do with this. Mondo Tees is releasing this on vinyl. Some of the guys over there are crazy super fans of the movie and soundtrack and really wanted to put something like this together. They were like, “would you be willing to…?” I was like, “are you fucking kidding me? I would love to!”
Tell me about the performance.
Hanley: It’s all the original band members from those sessions and me. I think it will be four or five songs. I think we were toying with doing acoustic jams of Du Jour songs, but then someone was like, “It’ll seem jokey,” so we decided to not. We’re just gonna do the rockers and maybe throw in a little “You Don’t See Me” to cleanse the palette in-between. It’s gonna be a whole thing.
Which were your favorite songs on the soundtrack?
Hanley: I only wrote one song, which was “Shape Shifter.” Then I have a co-writing credit on “Come On.” The whole thing was such a new experience for me. I had never been a “gun for hire” vocalist in my life. I had always been the singer in my band, but I had never been hired as a singer before. Everything about it was so fresh, new, challenging and intimidating. I can’t pick one song that was my favorite, but one standout was doing “You Don’t See Me” with Babyface because I had never sung a song like that before. Babyface just treated me like a baby in the nicest possible way. He just nurtured me on the process of singing a song that I’d never done before.
Cook: I should say a Josie song, but I think the Du Jour songs were my favorite. They were priceless. How did they even get away with them? They were so funny.
Have you kept in touch with any of the actors?
Hanley: I saw Tara at Perez Hilton’s birthday party in 2006 and I was trying to explain to her that I did the voices for Josie and the Pussycats, [but] she had no interest in pursuing that conversation. Funnily enough Salman Rushdie was next to her and I just talked to him, which is pretty funny. Rachael and I kept in touch a little bit because she was dating a friend of mine for a minute. Once Twitter became a thing we became Twitter friends, but I haven’t seen her in well over a decade. Deb and Harry are amazing people and I’m psyched to see them. I’m psyched that people finally get it with the music and the movie. I feel like people got it with the music, but I think the maybe with the film people didn’t really connect with the satire of it. I think with our culture just wasn’t really there yet.
Cook: It was one of those bittersweet camp-type friendships where we all thought we were going to be friends forever. We started leading different lives and things kept pulling us in different directions. I’ll consider us friends for life, even if we’re not pick up the phone or text friends. I’m so excited to see Tara [Reid]. The person I see the most is the guy who played Alexander – Paulo Costanzo. We’ve stayed in touch.
Rachael, you were recently in Khalid’s "Young, Dumb & Broke" music video. How did that happen?
Cook: I got a call from my agency saying, “hey Rachael, they’re calling to check on availability for an R&B video.” I was like, “say no more. I will do it.” Nobody calls me with cool offers. I have kids now and I’m convinced they think I’m the least cool person in the world now, and I’m concerned they’re right. I listened to the song and thought it was amazing. We worked on that video for all of 45 seconds, and it was great.
Will Letters To Cleo be doing anything else soon?
Hanley: We’re doing something in San Jose in October, we’re doing three dates at The Paradise in November. No plans [to make music] at the moment, but we’re open to it.
What does the Josie and the Pussycats movie mean to you years later?
Cook: It’s a perfect time-capsule for what that experience was for me, which was an insanely good time. People like to say that the movie was ahead of its time or it wasn’t marketed right…that was difficult to us at the time when it came out, but it found an audience now, which is what mattered. I think [audiences] would like it a lot more today because people are a lot more “woke” about the way media manipulates, either subtle or overt.
Did people think you were doing the singing in the movie?
Cook: I’m not really sure. It’s a movie, so I think people expect great levels of fiction. I don’t think it sat wrong with my voice. I don’t believe they would have cast someone who didn’t have a voice, which I cannot do. I’m just lucky it was a different time in that sense.
With regards to the vinyl, is there any unreleased material on it?
Kaplan: There’s a 7-inch Du Jour single and the whole record. Dave [Gibbs] I know sent Mondo some unreleased tracks and demos, but I don’t think they ended up using them.
Elfont: The interesting thing is the album has never been available for streaming. The only way to find it is on CD. Now that it’s on vinyl more people can go listen to it.
Are there plans to bring this screening another city?
Kaplan: There have been rumblings of an event in Austin or an event in New York.